Two groups of students from Parker Junior High impressed the judges at a state history competition on April 22. One group honored the impact of a sports legend. The other group’s members embodied iconic film directors in a performance that won them a place in the national competition in June.
Led by teacher Linda O’Dwyer, the students competed at the Illinois State National History Competition in Springfield, Ill. The contest challenges middle school students to create a project — a paper, exhibit board, performance, website or documentary — that ties into a central theme.
On the occasion of the competition’s 50th anniversary, O’Dwyer said this year’s theme was “Frontiers in History.”
“This is my 10th year doing this. At Parker, we include it in the curriculum, so all the students in seventh- and eighth-grade humanities classes work on a project,” O’Dwyer said. “Then it’s optional if students want to enter their project into competition.”
Parker students first competed with their teams at the school level. Winners of that round advanced to a regional competition at University of Chicago, and three teams from Parker moved on to the state competition.
Only two teams who competed in each project category at the state level are selected to advance to the national competition in Washington D.C. The Parker team that competed in the performance category won one of those spots.
The team, including Abby Mullin, Eleanor O’Shea, Violet Bivens and Kammi Nelson, wrote and starred in a short play depicting iconic film directors including Charlie Chaplain, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock.
“We chose to (focus on) cinematic frontiers,” O’Shea said. “Our stage play centers around four different directors who are all at an award show, trying to prove why they should win the award for best director.”
Nelson said the play moves through different time periods and genres as it showcases what each director accomplished in his career, emphasizing their influence on the film industry.
The girls said their research helped them learn about the unique perspectives of the four directors they highlighted, and how directors shape the movies they make.
Another team that advanced to the state competition included eighth-graders Jaylan Gardner, Christian Sally, Quentin Betts and Kolby Daniels. The group of friends chose to focus their exhibit board on the impact of boxer and activist Muhammed Ali.
Though the team did not win the state competition in their category, which O’Dwyer said is the most competitive, the boys said they learned more about Ali’s career and his life outside the boxing ring through their project work. O’Dwyer even arranged an in-person visit with Ali’s daughter Maryum, who attended Parker.
“We had a great primary source in Maryum Ali,” Gardner said. “It was really inspiring and great to have her here. She gave us a lot of stories and insight, especially how seeing her father in his day-to-day activities shaped her as a woman.”
For much of their source material, students relied on Parker’s media center, which O’Dwyer said allows them to conduct research on reliable websites curated by school media specialist Sarah Rudenga.
Originally inspired by an image of Ali on a friend’s T-shirt, Daniels said he didn’t realize the topic would get so serious when the group started the project. The team learned about Ali’s devotion to Islam and his protesting of the Vietnam War, along with his work promoting social and racial justice.
“He helped other Black activists and activists in general stick up for themselves,” Daniels said.
The group said they also enjoyed their trip to Springfield, which included sightseeing in addition to attending the competition.
“We went to Abraham Lincoln’s house, learned some history, and ate a lot of pizza,” Gardner said.